So What’s Wrong With The Hobbit?

Before we can discuss why The Hobbit 2: Electric Smeagoloo is so disappointing, we must first discuss why Lord of the Rings was so heart-rendingly evocative.  And there’s a lot of reasons for LotR’s success, many of which are present in The Hobbit: Peter Jackson’s stunning camerawork and cinematography, beautiful acting, grand special effects.

But Lord of the Rings is a tapestry, and the Hobbit is a bunch of threads.  Why?

At a structural level, Lord of the Rings worked for two fundamental reasons:

1)  Everyone had the same goal: Stop Sauron
Now, each character had a different path to that need: for some, it was was becoming invested in that goal (like Merry and Pippin, who initially didn’t care), and for others it was accepting the responsibility you’d been running from all your life (Aragorn), and for still others it was fighting great temptation to accomplish that goal (Frodo!), or standing by your man in order to help him accomplish that goal (brave, brave Sam), or even needing to accomplish that goal so badly you came to distrust and betray your friends (Boromir).

But every single major scene in Lord of the Rings is about that goal of stopping Sauron.  Either they’re bringing the ring to Mount Doom, or they’re blunting the assault of Sauron’s armies because if Frodo throws the ring in after everyone’s slaughtered, well, pyrrhic victory: accomplished.

Now, there are many scenes where they’re not directly crossing swords with Sauron’s minions, as in the case of Aragorn and Arwen’s romance, or the loving hour-long introduction of Hobbiton at the beginning – but those are all to show us what is at stake.  Those scenes either show us what will be lost should the Fellowship fail to stop Sauron, or show us what the Fellowship (and Faramir, and Eowyn) are sacrificing in order to stop Sauron.

It’s a sprawling story, but it’s tightly knitted together.

2)  In accomplishing that goal, friendships were made. 
Let us flash back to Return of the King, after the assault on Minas Tirith has been turned aside, and the heroes realize the only way they’re going to ultimately win the war is if the Ring is destroyed.  They decide, heroically, to stage a distraction mission so that Sauron won’t be looking when their spies creep up upon Mount Doom.  And despite the fact that this is the only way that anyone in Middle Earth survives, and despite the fact that this is a great cataclysmic war that will affect millions of lives and all of them, what do they say as they agree to sacrifice their lives?

“For Frodo.”

Think about that: “For Frodo.”  The world is burning, and yet still their concern is to protect their friend.  The vast sea of battle is reduced – and beautifully – to a single human(oid) face.

The brilliance of Lord of the Rings is that these characters come to care deeply about one another.  Yes, Gimli and Legolas dislike each other at first, but battle makes them come to respect each other as brothers.  Yes, Gandalf is irritated by Merry and Pippin’s superficial antics, but he also comes to love them.  When Gandalf dies, the Fellowship is not devastated because this quest will be so much harder without the might and wisdom of their only wizard: they are devastated because they have lost someone they loved.

Lord of the Rings works because the personal and the plot are effortlessly interwoven.  Yes, the plot states that they are trying to stop Sauron, but the goal from scene to scene is that they are trying to protect each other.  They are, in a very real sense, a family.

Now.

Let us discuss the Hobbit.

The first major structural problem with the Hobbit is that the characters are literally not sharing goals.  In the book, the goal of Bilbo and the Dwarves is to get the Dwarves’ treasure and title back from Smaug.  And that’s pretty much Gandalf’s desire, too.

In the movie, the dwarves and Bilbo want to get the Dwarven homeland back from Smaug.  Okay, great!  But Gandalf wants to stop the rise of a Mysterious Dark Power.  That he doesn’t tell Bilbo or the dwarves about.  That, in fact, he vanishes without explanation to follow, repeatedly.

So what’s the main goal of this story?  What’s the victory condition?

The main problem with the Hobbit is that the dwarves have one goal that we are – or could be – emotionally invested in, which is to say, to get their home back.  And the first movie, though troubled, had made a pretty good start to that: at the end of The Hobbit, Bilbo had nobly declared that he would help the dwarves get their homes back because he had one, and they did not.  Good.  That works.

And in the Hobbit 2, that emotional need gets smeared, blurred, and forgotten.

The problem with Desolation is that it keeps adding new plots, none of which link up emotionally or thematically to the Bilbo and the dwarves’ quest.  Okay, they’re captured by the Wood Elves!  That’s great, that’s stopping our heroes from getting to the mounta – oh, wait, the elves are fighting a vast and encroaching darkness, led by a possibly-mad king, with armies of orcs angrily chipping away at their territory?

That’s – cool, I guess, but what’s it have to do emotionally with these poor dwarves and their lost homeland?  How is it a reflection or an amplification or a clarification of these dwarves’ emotional desires?

…oh.  It doesn’t.

Oh, and here we are introduced to Bard, who’s been retooled from the book into a smuggler fighting the corrupt machinations of an evil mayor.  And he’s dealing with a poor, downtrodden townspeople (of a town characterized by a delightful incuriousness to so much as look out of their windows when hordes of orcs are slashing and growling outside their doorsteps), and he’s clearly going to need to clean up this town, and….

…what’s that have to do with the dwarves and their emotional needs?

Nothing?

Oh well.

The thing is, it could be argued that Bard has a lot to do with the dwarves, because his ancestor was instrumental in fighting Smaug, and he has the secret arrow, and yadda yadda yadda…. but the Bard storyline is merely tied into the Dwarvish storyline, it is not thematically related to it.  The Bard section of the story isn’t resonant, like poor Boromir, who wanted to do the right thing in the wrong way, and presaged a possible collapse of the Fellowship’s noble desires.  It isn’t emotionally resonant like Gollum’s story is to Frodo, of a fellow magical addict who Frodo needs to believe he can save because he needs to believe he can save himself.  It isn’t emotionally resonant like Denethor, a cold and power-hungry man who shows Aragorn all the reasons why Middle Earth needs a King who cares.

I’m not saying the Bard storyline isn’t interesting (though honestly, it’s a bit cliched).  But it’s not a reflection of the dwarves’ needs.  It might be, with some work, as both Bard and the dwarves are suffering from the failure of their ancestors – but that’s not actually brought up at all in the story.  Thorin literally does not know about Bard’s past, and so cannot be affected by it.

And so what we get in the Hobbit is, as I said, a tangle of string.  We have scenes that exist and are exciting in a vacuum… but each additional scene literally plants a big thumb on the “PAUSE THE DWARF EMOTIONAL EVOLUTION” button while we explore the machinations of Baby Sauron.  And the Baby Sauron plotline is ineffective because nobody is on the same page except for Gandalf and the other wizards, and the people who could know about that – like, say, the wood elves or the dwarves – are kept in the dark.

I don’t envy Peter Jackson’s challenge here, because the Hobbit is a hell of a story to try to tell.  You can’t make it about friendship and the dwarves bonding with the burglar, because of how bitterly the Hobbit ends.  (I’m being good about not explicitly spoiling you here, but come on – the Hobbit’s all of 300 pages in large type, it’s been around for seventy years, you’ve got no excuse.)  You have to give Bard the Bowman some backstory, because in the book he literally appears out of nowhere to accomplish a large plot device, which is hell.  And you’ve got people expecting the new Lord of the Rings, which the Hobbit isn’t and never was.

But the Lord of the Rings was a tapestry because each scene knitted together into a larger whole – when you introduced each of a billion new things, they were all related.  The Hobbit introduces new plotlines at the expense of other plotlines, and that leaves it with this sing-songy structure where we are asked to care about one thing here, and another thing here, and never quite care.

And it’s not that we didn’t have those in Lord of the Rings!  One of my favorite scenes of all time is Gimli, recounting receiving his gift from the beautiful Galadriel, where he asked for one hair: “She gave me three.”  And that’s such a beautifully delivered line – such a wonderful, evocative mix of Gimli being so deeply in love that he literally does not care that she will never love him back in that way, a sadness and beauty and weird strength and vulnerability from a gruff dwarf.

And Peter Jackson cut it from the first film.

He put it back in because sure, it’s great once you know all the characters and are in love, but in that first tight cut he said, quite rightfully, “This isn’t relevant to the overall quest.  It’s a frippery.  And it can go.”  Likewise, the interruption of the interminable Tom Bombadil was never filmed because this Peter Jackson, back then, realized that a guy who showed up and didn’t even care about Sauron or about getting the heroes closer to Sauron was something we didn’t need to see.

But in the Hobbit, we get ten minutes of the Skinchanger, who also serves no real relevant purpose aside from getting our dudes some ponies.

Which brings us to problem #2.  We might be able to get around all of this thematic whiplash if – if! – the story was about friendship.  But it is not.  I think that’s really summed up nowhere else than in Bard’s town.  Because let’s be honest, even if we leave out every spoiler in the world, there is a town living in the shadow of a dragon, and a dragon, and if you haven’t figured out one of the key scenes in this series is going to revolve around a big old dragon fight, well, you’re probably shocked when your toast comes with your eggs at the diner.

But the Dwarves are at odds with Bard, the only person we’re asked to give a crap about in this entire town.  They don’t like him.  They don’t respect him for his cleverness.  They, in fact, literally escape him at the first available opportunity, and are at odds with him.  So when the dragon roars out of the mountain, headed to destroy this fishing village, what does Bilbo say?

Is it “For Frodo”?

No.  It’s a generic “Oh, no.”

Because what’s going to happen is that the dragon is going to kill a lot of abstract people, in an abstract CGI tragedy, and that’s kind of a shame but none of that has the emotional punch of two hobbits on a volcano.

And that could be a tense, awful, gutpunch of a scene – if the dwarves or Bilbo had come to care about Bard, and when the town was about to be destroyed, it was their friend who was going to die.  But as it is, we don’t even see the dwarves particularly liking the other dwarves.  They bobble along in a sort of beardy river, but despite the endless fighting scenes, we never see any real concern that oh my God this man who I love like a brother is about to have his face eaten by a warg.  It’s an abstract and assumed thing, where they’re all in danger so none of them are, and they eat at the same table but none of them really care.

So we don’t care.

The fundamental trick an author learns is that if you want your audience to care about a character, have someone care about them.  Or vice versa.  Your rogue is a bloody-handed murderer, the kind of guy who stabs hobos and drinks their wine?  Well, if he has a mother who thinks the world of him, a mother who he’ll kill to protect, all those concerns over his behavior will evaporate.  Because we respond to people who have ties.

The dwarves have no ties to each other beyond “Hey, we’re all dwarves.”  They have weak ties to Bilbo – ties that could be stronger, but for every “Oh, burglar, we do adore you!” moment in Desolation, we literally have an hour of BANG BRAH YEAH ARROW fighting, and so that bond is tenuous at best.

And so what you get in Hobbit 2 is a bunch of scenes at odds with each other, with different stakes and goals, enacted by people who don’t appear to give a crap about each other.  Add Peter Jackson’s new-and-all-videogame-level fight scenes, where all the excitement just beats you in the head and face until yes, we get it, Legolas is very badass, and you have a long movie that you want to like but somehow cannot love.

Because there is nothing to love.  The characters in it do not love.  Fellowship was all about love, and friendship, and about why the people in it came to adore one another so that group of nine people could never be broken, and every plot advancement brought them closer to extinction and closer to each other.

Desolation has a group of people.  Some of them like each other.  Many don’t.  They do things, purposely keeping their agendas secret.  They have entirely separate agendas, in fact.  And so you’ll pass a few hours in a movie theater, watching a gussied-up Tin Man – a pretty thing with no heart.

11 Comments

  1. Sarah Hernandez
    Dec 14, 2013

    My main issue with the first installment was in the decision to spread it out into a trilogy.
    I could see LoTR formatted as a movie trilogy… because it IS a trilogy! “The Hobbit” is a 300 page (quasi-children’s) book… with that I could see expanding it from the Bakshi version’s hour-ish run time to the three-ish hours that most films run these days. That would allow for the inclusion of Bombadil (which, imho, is one of the neatest characters in the book despite his lack of necessity to the plot), Beorn, the Dwarves’ dances with Wood Elves and Bard’s backstory.
    But 9 freaking hours? Really? There’s just not *that* much story in the original book to tell! It was inevitable for Jackson and the writers to have to pad the run time out with so much filler that they lost original story. Which, from your account above, is exactly what happened.

    Despite what Jackson says in the interviews, there was no reason (aside from raking in as much money as possible) to spread the damned thing out like they did. That P.J. and the writers went into it with dollar-signs in their eyes makes me just as sad as I was when watching Lucas fumble Star Wars : Ep 1 – 3.

    I was so hugely disappointed with “Unexpected Journey”. I dearly wanted for “Desolation” to do better and am sorry to hear that this is not the case. 🙁

    • Thomas
      Dec 17, 2013

      “With that I could see expanding it from the Bakshi version’s hour-ish run time to the three-ish hours that most films run these days.”

      You mean Rankin/Bass, right? Bakshi only did the one Lord of the Rings film.

  2. CreekGeek
    Dec 14, 2013

    This is a very well-thought out, well-reasoned response, and I will agree wholeheartedly that more could have been done to tie the varied storylines together. However, my interpretation of the closest thing to a thematic core of the film is that it’s all about what a homeland is, what it does, what it suffers without.

    The first film made us care because the Dwarves were dislocated, and Bilbo had this cozy hobbit hole, and the contrast was what made the quest matter. In the second, we see people doing “homeland” wrong (the Elven King, who isolates his people from the world in a misguided attempt to preserve his home – Tauriel senses that something is wrong with that picture and drags Legolas into the realm of humanity, literally and figuratively);
    we see Beorn, who has a wonderful home but nobody except his beloved animals to share it with;
    we see Esgaroth/Lake-Town, where “home” is just a place you’re stuck living and value is placed on individual gain at the expense of the community (Bard chafes against this and his home is the one place in town where refuge can be had);
    and the Dwarves act like jerks because they’re so focused on regaining their own homeland and nursing their resentment that they couldn’t care less about what’s happening to other people.
    As before, Bilbo is the one person who seems to get it, in general, and he’s the one who bothers to ask about Beorn’s people, learns Bard’s name, and tries to stop Smaug from going to Lake-Town (though it could have been made clearer that he was worried about specific people, I’ll definitely grant that!).
    As for Gandalf popping off now and then to deal with mysterious evils, there actually *was* a fair amount of that in the book, and in LOTR Tolkien even managed to tie it into the overall story/canon. PJ & Co. are more explicit about it, but that doesn’t particularly bother me. You’re right that the transitions felt jagged quite often, though.

    Most of the changes seemed to me like an attempt to “update” a 70-year-old children’s book to make it more relatable and enjoyable for modern audiences…and of course PJ had to have his usual fun with severed heads, etc., lol.

    I enjoyed it, overall, though I fully understand the criticisms I’m hearing, both here and elsewhere. It wasn’t the book – I didn’t expect it to be, much of the book wouldn’t WORK on screen – and it was silly at times, but I don’t feel insulted, as a fan of the original, and I don’t feel the spirit of the book was mistreated.

    Sorry for the rant! Thank you for expressing your thoughts in such a civil way 🙂

    • TheFerrett
      Dec 15, 2013

      Counter-rants as welll thought-out as this are appreciated. And I get what it’s trying to do in terms of friction, but that theme is poorly expressed at best, to me.

  3. DebzL
    Dec 14, 2013

    But aren’t you missing the whole point of “The Hobbit” as the setup piece for LotR? That Gandalf needs a cover story (Dwarves trying to reclaim patrimony) to be running about the countryside investigating all the weird happenings leading to the rise of Sauron et al? That “The Hobbit” is where all the players for LotR are introduced and their backstories are related? And LotR IS the resolution of it all?

    • TheFerrett
      Dec 15, 2013

      No, I am not. A setup piece still needs to be satisfying in its own right. And The Hobbit is not exactly a crash-and-burn – it’s really pretty to look at – but I don’t give a rat’s ass whether “It sets up LotR properly!” as much as “Is it satisfying even if I don’t know LotR exists?”

  4. DebzL
    Dec 14, 2013

    Pretty much, IMNSHO, the 2 Tolkien/Jackson trilogies are a reprise of the Star Wars story track – George Lucas produced Episodes #4-6 (the conflict & its resolution) first, then Episodes #1-3 (the backstory & setup to support #4-6) were produced later. Nice way to hook your audience – give them the action & happy ending up front, then use that to pull them into the prequels because, y’know, the happy ending is already known.

  5. MJ
    Dec 15, 2013

    I’m going to guess you haven’t studied literary criticism, or at least not for LOTR. All of the books are thematically tied together as a metaphor for WWII. The Shire is America and isolationism. When Bilbo gets into the town with the Bard, he’s seeing a foreshadowing of what awaits for them if they continue to ignore outside events. The elves are a mirror for the dwarves- their home is at risk and the dwarves serve as a stark example of what they could become. This plays out in the later books (or earlier movies in this case). The Hobbit is the pre-war period, or WWI depending on perspective. Everyone has their own interests and no one really seems to get along all that well. They certainly don’t listen to each other despite some clear signs that ‘something is wrong.’
    Peter Jackson has done a great job so far of translating these themes visually. My only disappointment in Hobbit movie 1 was that “13 birds” couldn’t fit in.

    • TheFerrett
      Dec 15, 2013

      I’ve studied enough of literary criticism to know that “having a subtext” is not a substitute for “having an actual text.” When the themes are perfect but the plot and characterization suck, you get Prometheus – a deeply dissatisfying movie.

      So yes, again, I can get what he’s trying to do and still say that he failed at making an actually satisfying sequel to LotR, or in fact of a good movie of a good book.

      • Farquhart VanDerHeouven
        Dec 15, 2013

        It seems to me that there is an inherent flaw in the concept of the “prequel” as a filmic device.

        The movies that led up to The Avengers, all worked on their own, but would that still be the case had they been released after the big one? Or, would there have been an extra pressure to foreshadow *more* if they were prequels?

        As someone who is not a Tolkien fan (too many damn characters), I went to see the movies as movies and not as adaptations which compete with a movie I already saw in HeadVision24,000D. I found the LoTR movies to be somewhat enjoyable, but the Hobbit less so, as you say, there is no investment in character.

        Like SW1-3, it seems like a desire to satisfy the two constituencies of the almighty $, and the fan’s need for more of the same. It leaves the casual moviegoer in the lurch.

        It seems most like Star Trek 6: By Trekkies, for Trekkies, as an apology for ST5. A too-specific movie for a too-specific audience.

    • Thomas
      Dec 17, 2013

      Not to mention that the WWII parallels, while certainly not non-existent, are also not actually intended by Tolkien. And they certainly don’t impact much of The Hobbit at all, at least not intentionally.

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